Federal Report Shows Number of Youth in Foster Care Declined Last Year

The number of youth in foster care declined for the first time since 2011, according to an annual report on youth in care released by the Department of Health and Human Services. But the length of time children stay has risen, with fewer of them returning to their parents.

The number of youth in care during fiscal 2018 was 437,283, according to the annual report from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which was released today. The 2017 count was 442,995, and had been adjusted down to 441,000, according to the statement released today by the U.S. Children’s Bureau (CB).

“It is encouraging to see the first decrease since 2011 in the number of children in foster care,” said Lynn Johnson, HHS’ assistant secretary for children and families, in the statement. “This administration has focused on primary prevention and adoption, and we are starting to see some better results.”

The AFCARS figures are in line with projects made by The Imprint in its annual “Who Cares” reporting project, which covers various aspects of foster care capacity. Each year, The Imprint asks each state for the number of youth in foster care on March 31.

Our estimate for 2018 was 439,020, about 2,000 more than this AFCARS report. Our 2019 estimate is that the number of youth in care has dropped to 428,006, which would be about 2 percent less than this AFCARS report shows for 2018.

The number of youth entering foster care during the year also declined, from 270,000 down to 263,000, according to AFCARS. And the number of youth exiting care has increased, up from 246,964 in 2017 to 250,103.

“The current decrease in the number of kids entering care, and those in care, is promising,” said CB Association Commissioner Jerry Milner, in the statement. “As our agency funds prevention projects we hope to see a continued indication that child welfare systems are relying less on foster care and serving more children and families in their home and communities.”

Nearly two-thirds of removals to foster care were associated with neglect, as opposed to physical or sexual abuse, and 36 percent of removals were associated with drug abuse of parents.

For the second year in a row, AFCARS shows troubling trends in the pathway to permanency for youth. The median length of time in care has risen to 13.2 months, up from 12.6 months in 2015. The length of stay had plummeted over a two-decade period – in 1998, it was 20.6 months.

Less than half of children exiting foster care were reunified with their parents or caregiver – last year was the first time since the annual AFCARS reports began in the 1990s that less than half of permanency outcomes were reunification. The increase in youths existing foster care this year is accounted for mostly by upticks in adoption and guardianship agreements.

The number of youth who age out into adulthood has declined to 17,844. That total remained stubbornly between 20,000 and 25,000 for years, but dropped to 19,945 on last year’s AFCARS report. The positive trend on aging out is likely aided by the expansion of extended foster care plans to more states, where youth are allowed to remain in care past the age of 18.

Our data collection project, Who Cares: A National Count of Foster Homes and Families,
predicted a decline in the number of youth in care.

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